Combating racism and sexism in Major League Soccer | Sports | Chicago Reader

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Combating racism and sexism in Major League Soccer

Supporter groups the Plastics and the Black Fires are demanding change.

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In early June, the Black Fires released a “You Gotta Change” initiative demanding the Chicago Fire improve their diversity tactics as a team. - COURTESY BLACK FIRES
  • courtesy Black Fires
  • In early June, the Black Fires released a “You Gotta Change” initiative demanding the Chicago Fire improve their diversity tactics as a team.

At only 22 years old, the Chicago Fire Football Club is fairly new. It’s a baby league amongst other sports teams that have hundreds of years of unpacking to do. There’s still time to address concerns, to undo the wrongdoings, and to improve the league to make it its own. For Chicago Fire supporters like Meredith Miklasz and Jake Payne, that’s exactly what they are set out to do.

Miklasz grew up a theater kid who spent her time in the punk scene. Five years ago after a breakup, Miklasz decided to start supporting her ex’s rival team, the UK’s Arsenal Football Club. She ended up being on the board of the Chicago Gooners, a Chicago-based Arsenal's supporters’ team, for four years. Dili Yang, the president of the Gooners and friend of Miklasz, was a huge motivator for Miklasz’s involvement in the supporters’ group. “She made the Gooners this incredibly inclusive, diverse, safe space for supporters,” says Miklasz. “She built a paradise in what is normally a boys’ club.”

After some time, Miklasz decided to support her local team, the Chicago Fire, and experienced a shattering culture shock. As a woman and as an online sex worker, Miklasz says she felt “unsafe for the first time” as a supporter. “I felt like I couldn’t be myself. I felt like I couldn’t be open about my job.” Although she retired from in-person sex work three years ago, Miklasz says, “I was worried people would find out and shame me. It was really scary.” Miklasz even experienced harassment from an individual who threatened to out her as a sex worker by telling folks her online name and by following her on her work-related social media accounts. “This is someone who has been in the community for 20 years or so,” she says. Just this week, Miklasz experienced online Twitter harassment, which is why she says the Plastics, an LGBTQ and women’s soccer fan group, needs to exist: to protect all marginalized communities, sex workers, queer folk, and BIPOC in the soccer community.

Beyond her own personal experiences, Miklasz befriended queer Fire supporters who feel like they didn’t fit the mold of what Chicago Fire supporters think their community should look like. “It’s a deeply patriarchal community,” says Miklasz. She landed a position as the marketing director on the Independent Supporters’ Association (ISA) Section 8 board, which oversees the supporters’ groups, and in that position she experienced even more trauma. “That’s when I really experienced the sexism and the vitriol they have for women who speak out and women who want to be involved in the community,” she says. As a result, Miklasz has had to seek therapy for the first time in years.

“I’m very femme,” Miklasz says. “I like wearing a lot of makeup. I like wearing tight-fitting clothing. I love cleavage. I love booty shorts. I love being hot and I love feeling hot. Obviously, the misogynists and also women within our community with internalized misogyny don’t like that. I get a lot of flack, I get a lot of side-eyes, and I get a lot of judgment.” As a joke, Miklasz made a joke on Twitter about creating the Plastics, and after a few friends encouraged her to do it, she decided to deep dive into the supporters’ group with cofounder and Salt Lake fan Katherine Tucker, who is based in Utah.

Once folks began to follow the Plastics, Miklasz says the response was incredible. Folks were saying, “I feel seen. I feel heard. I relate to this. I identify with this.” The commitment of the project is to help fans find safe spaces to watch parties, either online or at physical games. And the Plastics aren’t just in Chicago. If you’re traveling and looking for friends to watch a game with, you can reach out to affiliates for access to safe sports spaces and get-togethers. The past few months have been different for soccer fans as in-person matches aren’t happening. This has given Miklasz time to have preliminary discussions with members on what needs to change.

During the pandemic, Miklasz has been working with the finance director of Section 8 Chicago, Carri Aldridge, to put together an LGBTQ initiative to make the stands, stadium, and community safer. “The Fire have been very receptive to what we’ve discussed so far,” she says. “They are taking this wave of change very seriously. It is up to the supporters to make sure that they continue to take this seriously and to make those changes for the good of all of us.”

In 2016, Nelson Rodriguez addressed a homophobic chant that uses a homophobic slur toward a male sex worker, and told fans who used the chant that they were not welcome and would be subject to removal. He told Patch that he didn’t remember a time in soccer when he didn’t hear this particular chant and that it’s “prevalent in the sport.” Although Rodriguez hoped the crowd would hear his concerns, the chant is still heard all over the world.

This comes years after the Chicago Fire fan’s 2012 rainbow banner, which was unveiled to reveal the words, “Our City Our Club Our Diversity Our Strength.” The monthlong display was a part of a stance against racism and bigotry, and supporters in Kansas City, Washington, D.C., and Vancouver all participated. However, the rainbow flag in Chicago was a landmark event, as no MLS or professional sports team in the U.S. had ever before expressed their stance against homophobia. One of Miklasz’s biggest goals is to eradicate the chant. She has been having discussions with the Fire on what the consequences look like for folks in the stands participating in the chant. Miklasz says that she pulls folks aside and lets them know that the chant is homophobic and that the chant isn’t welcome in their section. Taking the time to educate people politely is imperative for Miklasz. Ultimately, the Fire only control so much. Fellow supporters and community are the ones who will need to set an example for others in order to ensure safety.

The Plastics is also seeking to address a concern of Monterrey Security, a private firm that polices the stadiums, which has been a huge issue for many folks who visit Fire games. Monterrey has been used at Soldier Field, Lollapalooza, Lincoln Park Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, the Village of Rosemont, and various other locations. According to the Sun-Times, Monterrey Security employs off-duty cops looking for extra income. Monterrey has been accused of ghost-payrolling, overbilling, and having unqualified guards. As a result, they lost their contract with the Minnesota Vikings at the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. And in 2017, 23-year-old Donnell Burns was killed after a Monterrey guard kneeled on his neck outside of a Walmart. A solution proposed by the Plastics to avoid any issues with the security team is enacting sensitivity training so that the guards can protect the fans instead of hurting them.

“The Fire have been very receptive to what we’ve discussed so far. They are taking this wave of change very seriously. It is up to the supporters to make sure that they continue to take this seriously and to make those changes for the good of all of us.” —Meredith Miklasz, founder of the Plastics - COURTESY MEREDITH MIKLASZ
  • courtesy Meredith Miklasz
  • “The Fire have been very receptive to what we’ve discussed so far. They are taking this wave of change very seriously. It is up to the supporters to make sure that they continue to take this seriously and to make those changes for the good of all of us.” —Meredith Miklasz, founder of the Plastics

Black Fires is a Chicago Fire and Chicago Red Stars support group that promotes Black culture and experiences within the culture of soccer. Supporters are from all over the city and the core group is approximately nine or ten folks as well as people who promote the Black Fires’ mission as allies.

Miklasz and the folks from Black Fires work together and have stood together to support one another. “We are two of the most marginalized supporters in the community. We very much have this thick-as-thieves, ‘you have my back, I have your back’ mentality,” says Miklasz. “We are very much fighting the same fight, just in different parts of the arena.”

Recently, both the Chicago Fire and the Chicago Red Stars released statements on the murder of George Floyd and how their clubs will combat racism. Chicago Fire stated that by November 1, 2020, the club would have new programs intended to combat racism and introduce a positive change. “We need to do more. And we will,” they wrote. On June 5, they announced they would be cutting ties with Nini’s Deli after the owner’s racist and homophobic comments—the deli would permanently close on June 8. The Chicago Red Stars promised allyship, education, communication, and better representation. On Twitter, many folks wrote that the statement was “too late,” and some were angry that the Black Fires weren’t a part of the release of the statement.

Jake Payne, a cofounder of the Black Fires, plans on organizing with the club in November. In early June, the Black Fires released a “You Gotta Change” initiative demanding the Fire improve their diversity tactics as a team. The Lakeview resident says, “We made these demands based on how they should interact with the community and how they should better how they operate the club in both longterm and shortterm windows of time.” He believes that Chicago Fire will respond well to the ideas since these are informative and essential initiatives. The demands were split into groups: sports-related ideas and community engagement ideas for the short-term and near future.

In one of the demands, the Black Fires mention including a diversity and inclusion officer for the team. What does that look like? Payne explains over e-mail, “That’s an ongoing conversation,” but essentially, the club will appoint an individual to “hold the team accountable on its diversity and community outreach internally.” Payne says, “It’s way different than us doing it, we can only keep an eye on so much.” And because the Black Fires are made up of fans and supporters, they aren’t seeing what’s going on inside of the locker room. The diversity and inclusion officer would be paid to enforce initiatives and work towards eradicating racial injustice within the league. Other demands include community-led workshops, creating coaching opportunities for Black players, expanding recruiting Fire Jrs on the south and west sides, book programs, recognizing Black History Month and Juneteenth, plus various other Black-centric community initiatives.

When I ask Payne how soccer teams could be more inclusive and diverse, he says, “Just make an effort, it’s really simple.” Black communities have long been ignored in soccer and Payne explains that suburban European/American white families and their large presence in the soccer community create a divide for Black folks. “When you go out of your way to help the Polish community, who already have the exposure to the game, and not the Black community, which is just as prominent and important, it doesn't show that you're wanting to put the sport in front of everyone. When you sit in your board meeting and think who you're marketing your game to, your stands reflect those decisions.”

On June 19, 70 Black Players Coalition of Major League Soccer announced that they had formed the Black Players Coalition of MLS and secured $75,000 for charity. They will also speak out against racial inequalities in the league and support Black communities all over the U.S. and Canada.

Payne explains that this effort to end racism within soccer goes beyond monetary donations. Communities need to foster relationships and be directly involved on an interpersonal level. “There's a difference in reaching out to the Black community in this city to profit and reaching out to the Black community because it's what needs to be done. They just need to do what a lot of people need to do right now and just listen to Black people, fans and players, and staff alike.”

Soccer has a history of racism as well as a history of taking lenient action against players for displaying aggressive taunting. In England, an anti-racist and pro-inclusion group found that from the 2017/2018 season to the 2018/2019 season there was a 43 percent increase of discrimination reports. Sociologist and professor Ben Carrington was interviewed on racism in soccer by SB Nation and said, “Sports are part of society and society is part of sports. That doesn’t negate the obligation to address those issues when they’re confronted in the areas in which you work. I think the bar has been too low and we’ve given too much praise to organizations and those involved in football, for doing the bare minimum.” Groups like Black Fires and the MLS coalition are looking to see physical action, to see real change, and to improve the way that the league and the stands reflect this change.

Before the pandemic, Black Fires were working towards establishing watch parties for soccer supporters with a Juneteenth party and clothing drives, and by inviting more folks to come out to the Fire and Red Stars games. The Black Fires host an annual event during Black History Month, and this year they held a panel discussion with current and former players at Some Like It Black in Bronzeville. For the future, the supporter group has a long-standing dream of utilizing a bus or a shuttle leaving from a south- or west-side bar and arriving at a Red Stars or Fire game. Moreover, they are looking into becoming more involved with youth soccer and fundraising. “We're always trying to work on something that will help Black fans see this amazing sport and also feel like they have a place in it as well,” says Payne.

Soccer is the world’s sport, spanning all continents and communities, and folks like Miklasz and Payne are working towards creating a safer, more supportive experience for fans of the league in Chicago. Carving out spaces for the LGBTQ community, women, and Black folks is a priority to foster a positive experience for fans in the stands. Until then, all it takes is all you got.  v

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